Gaining Control of Your Free Time

Author and time management expert Laura Vanderkam gave a TED talk in October 2016 entitled, “How to Gain Control of Your Free Time.” During the talk, she described how to gain control of our time by prioritizing our lives. She explained that, when we communicate that we do not have time for something, what we are really saying is that it is not a priority. Since watching this TED talk, my perspective on the phrase “I don’t have time” has changed.

Vanderkam urges us to change our language from “I don’t have time” to “It’s not a priority” because that is more accurate. I came across this advice prior to Vanderkam’s talk, but had brushed it off because I genuinely felt that I did not have enough hours in the day to accomplish everything I wanted to do. That changed when I heard the story that she told at the beginning of her TED talk. She spoke about a woman who was always saying that she was too busy, but then found seven hours in her week to fix a broken water heater in her home. If this woman had been asked before the water heater broke, whether she had an extra seven hours to train for a race or take a class or whatever other activity you can think of, she would have said absolutely not. Yet when this woman had to find time to fix the water heater she found those hours, even though at the beginning of the week it would have seemed unfathomable they existed. This story, more than anything else, brought home just what Vanderkam meant when she said that we find the time for things that are priorities. In this anecdote, the water heater needed to be fixed, so the woman found time to fix it.

Vanderkam uses this story to illustrate that time is very elastic, and while we cannot make more of it, time will stretch to accommodate our priorities. Therefore, Vanderkam says, “the key to time management is treating our priorities as the equivalent of that broken water heater.” To do this, the first step is to figure out what our priorities are, both professionally and personally. Vanderkam suggests that the best way to do this is to pretend that it is the end of the year and you are giving yourself a performance review. Think about what made the past year good and what you can do to make the next year even better. Do this for your professional life and your personal life. This will give you a list of goals to work through in the next year. Once you have the goals written out, break them down into doable steps.

Having a list of goals is great, but it is only the first step. To accomplish all of these goals, you have to translate them into your schedule; and, to do this you need to plan ahead. Vanderkam says that the best time to do this is Friday afternoons, because it is what economists call “low opportunity cost” time. On Friday afternoons Vanderkam advises everyone to take some time to make a list of priorities in three categories: career, relationship and self. Make a short list of goals for each category for the upcoming week and then schedule time to get those things done. Vanderkam points out that there are 168 hours in a week, which theoretically leaves a lot of time outside of work to meet these goals, so long as you make those things a priority. Of course, there are weeks when work consumes almost all those hours, leaving little time to do anything else. But there are also weeks when that is not the case; during those weeks, you can work on accomplishing those goals that you decided are a priority.

As a first-year associate at Debevoise, it was a challenge to get into the rhythm of balancing work with personal life. Over the past few months I have thought that I didn’t have time for things more often than I would like, so I began making a conscious effort to change that way of thinking. It is now clear to me that while there will certainly be weeks when I am incredibly busy, I will at least have an hour or two and often more to do something for myself. Since watching Vanderkam’s TED talk, I have determined what should be prioritized amongst the things that I put off. One thing that I have made more of an effort to do is keep in touch with old friends. I previously avoided reaching out to them by rationalizing that neither they nor I had time to keep in touch since we are all busy. That’s ridiculous, however, because of course I can spend a few minutes to send a message to a friend to catch up, no matter how busy I am. I simply have to prioritize sending those messages and I have been much better about doing that since implementing Vanderkam’s ideas. The next thing on my list of priorities is getting to the gym more often (or at all). Exercising used to be something that I always made time for; lately, that has been falling to the wayside.

Time management is not easy and there are instances when certain things cannot be priorities. Although it is important to be flexible, it is also clear to me, that if I really want to do something, then I must find the time to get it done. As Vanderkam said, “it’s about looking at the whole of one’s time and seeing where the good stuff can go.”